Hello Blog. Just got back last night from speaking at a corporate human-rights retreat for the Mitsubishi keiretsu (more on that in a separate posting). Also from a fact-finding mission in the backwoods of Shizuoka, where internationalization is continuing so apace, the education system cannot keep up. That’s the subject of this report:
REPORT: CHILDREN OF IMMIGRANTS AND JAPAN’S HAIR POLICE.
ONE SCHOOL’S ATTEMPT TO DEAL WITH “DIFFERENCES”
CAUSES TRAUMA IN THOSE BORN DIFFERENT
By Arudou Debito (firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.debito.org)
May 22, 2007
(NB: This has become the subject of a Japan Times article: “SCHOOLS SINGLE OUT FOREIGN ROOTS: International kids suffer under archaic rules” (July 17, 2007), available at http://www.debito.org/japantimes071707.html)
INTRODUCTION: During one of my recent speech tours, I was told by a Nikkei Brazilian student (I will call her Maria) that her sister (call her Nicola) had been victimized by a Japanese high school’s rules. According to Maria, Nicola had been forced by her school to dye her hair weekly because it was not as dark as her peers’. Maria said she herself escaped the Hair Police (she looks more phenotypically “Japanese” than her sister), but Nicola was subjected to periodical and frequent hair root checks. Nicola was then told to darken and even straighten it. Although graduated from the high school, Nicola still has not only mental trauma from the ordeal, but also damaged hair which to this day has not recovered. This was narrated to me as an example of how Japan’s cookie-cutter educational rules are doing a disservice to Japan’s imminent internationalization.
BACKGROUND: After Japan opened the floodgates to cheap foreign labor under its “Trainee” and “Researcher” Visa programs in 1990 (more on these programs blogged at http://www.debito.org/?s=trainee+visa), the number of South Americans, Filipina, and Chinese etc. have rocketed; Brazilian residents of Japan now stand at more than 300,000, the third-largest foreign minority in Japan. Many are working for less than half regular wages and with no social benefits (such as pension or unemployment insurance, and in some cases, health insurance) under the conditions of their visa. They have kept Japan’s domestic industries domestic and competitive (Toyota, for example, has become the world’s number two automaker due to foreign labor (http://www.debito.org/shuukandiamondo060504.html)
They have also suffered the indignity of their children not having guaranteed access to education. According to the Asahi Shinbun of Feb 12, 2007 (http://www.debito.org/?p=241), between “20 and 40%” of all Brazilian children in Japan are not attending school. Japanese schools are even turning away foreign children because, they claim (legally correctly) that “only citizens are guaranteed an education in Japan”. Meanwhile, according to the Yomiuri Shinbun evening edition of May 21, 2007 (http://www.debito.org/?p=408), 20,000 NJ students in Japanese schools are not sufficiently capable in the Japanese language to follow classes. There are no clear remedial measures being taken by the national government; some local governments and NGOs are trying to fill in the gap, see http://www.debito.org/hamamatsusengen.html), and there are some fledgling ethnic schools, but they are underfunded, expensive to many at these wages, and ministerially unaccredited (which means graduates cannot enter many Japanese universities).
Thus the biggest losers in this dreadful state of affairs are the immigrant children, some of whom are growing up uneducated, illiterate in any language, and sentenced to become an economic underclass (and members of youth gangs; I anticipate more NPA fingers being pointed at NJ youth for causing crime, of course). Thus as Newsweek Japan headlines in its Sept 13, 2006 issue (http://www.debito.org/newsweekjapan091306.html English version http://www.debito.org/?p=16): “Japan is still shutting its eyes regarding its dependence on immigration”.
Even those who beat the odds and stay in school have to suffer the indignities of what is tantamount to officially-sanctioned ijime: Being pointed out for their differences assigned from birth, and told to somehow “correct” them, for the sake of rules that refuse either to acknowledge or to update themselves to a changing state of affairs.
We now turn this report to finding out what was on the mind of Maria and Nicola’s high school, and why they received different treatment just because one looked more like one of her parents…
VISITING IKESHINDEN HIGH SCHOOL, OHMAEZAKI CITY, SHIZUOKA PREFECTURE
May 22, 2007, 1PM
Address: Shizuoka ken Ohmaezaki shi Ikeshinden 2907-1, http://www.ikeshinden-h.ed.jp/pasoind.htm
Getting to Ikeshinden was neither quick nor cheap. A 40-minute bus ride from the nearest JR station (Kikugawa), it took me six hours round trip (and more than 10,000 yen) from my speech venue and back. The area boasts many tea and farm factories, not to mention chemical, biochemical, filtration and even fishing rod factories attracting cheap labor. Still, Ikeshinden could be any generic town in Japan, not clearly full of NJ residents, save for the occasional Brazilian restaurant, liquor store, or person with South American features on public transport.
I made an appointment at Ikeshinden the day before with a Mr Okada, a middle-aged man with the energy and drive of high school teachers worldwide. I was directed to him because he is in charge of what I will affectionately call the Hair Police–a group of teachers (who rotate this duty every few years) who go around checking the neatness and appearance of Ikeshinden’s students. Okada had been working here for six years and through two HS principals (every single one of them honored in black-and-white photos mounted respectfully on the wall on cushioned tasseled pillows; they glowered down on us in the conference room we talked in), and was very helpful in explaining what is behind these kinds of systems.
Okada: “We have the kids follow the rules as listed in the Seito Techou (Students’ Guidebook) 2007.” He cited the rules regarding hair and allowed me to transcribe them:
–will not perm, straighten, dye, bleach etc their hair.
…are not allowed to have extreme (kyokutan) hairstyles, or shave their temples etc.
…will not let their hair fall over their eyes (and will not let their hair grow down to their collars).
They will have a refreshing style as befits a high school student. (koukousei rashiku sawayaka ni suru)
–will not perm, straighten, dye, bleach, or add extensions etc to their hair.
…will not let their hair fall over their eyes
Girls with long hair will pin it back in a way that does not interfere with classroom instruction.
I noted that some directives were a bit vague. (Then again, I thought, if rules got instead too specific, it would feel militaristic…) Who was the final arbiter in case there was some, pardon the pun, grey area? Okada said that for the time being, he was entrusted with that duty.
I asked about the mindset behind enforcing these kinds of rules.
Okada: “It’s important to get the students to understand the importance of following rules in society (kihan ishiki).” He also noted that it was important that students look proper for job and college interviews, as the school’s reputation was on the line. “It’s also important for students to stop thinking selfishly, and have an awareness of society (shakai ishiki).”
That’s when I raised the question about who these rules are for. If the student wants to control his or her own image, that is their business, no? The rules seemed more for the school’s benefit than the students.
Okada: “Probably. But about a decade ago, our rules were much looser and our school was one of the worst in the area. So our principal tightened them up, and now our reputation has gotten much better. It’s still tight to this day.”
I asked how many NJ students they had. “Nineteen, mostly Brazilian. Some Phiippine, Chinese, and Peruvian too.”
So then I raised the issue of Nicola (whose name and nationality I did not mention), and how she still felt traumatized by the enforcement of these rules. “Her sister said that she was forced to change her natural hair color and style regardless. Isn’t this unaccommodating?”
He said that in his six years of teaching there he had never heard of someone having to dye their natural hair color to black. Or straighten. In fact, he noted, straightening hair was specifically against the rule book. “We might have some people whose hair lightens due to exposure to the sun during sports, but even then we don’t tell them to dye it back. The fundamental rule is: ‘Don’t mess with your hair.'”
I then asked how they determined whether someone’s hair was in fact “natural” or not, and how they conducted the follicular search.
Okada: “It starts from the first week of school. We check everyone in assembly and see if they have any attributes which run foul of the rule book. If so, they are called in later as a group and searched more closely.”
You mean you look for black roots?
“We can usually tell if they’ve done something to their hair. People who curl or otherwise fiddle with their hair end up lightening it. Hair which differs from root to shoot is suspect.”
But look at my hair. I have dark brown roots but light tips. Would I be suspect?
“You would be called in for a closer look. It’s pretty clear–you can see a straight line between old dye and fresh growth in a hair.” He then explained in quite exact detail how the inspection goes. My barber would applaud. “But if it’s declared natural, we leave it as is, of course.”
So what happens if somebody is rumbled with fake coloration?
“We tell them to get their hair dyed back to black in a week. If they don’t comply, we take further measures. We will check every week for a few weeks, and their homeroom teachers keep an eye on them in future.”
And what if they still refuse to comply? How far would you go? Suspension?
“Truth be told, it hasn’t come up. The students have always eventually complied.”
So I returned to Nicola’s case. She said that she wasn’t judged as natural and you know the rest. Could there be a flaw in the system?
“I’ve never seen anyone with natural hair color being forced to dye it. I can’t say more without knowing the specific individual case.”
That was where Nicola’s issue ended. Since it is my wont, I concluded with advice:
“Okada-sensei, I understand the need for uniforms and order in schools. However, uniforms does not necessarily mean uniformity, and uniforms and hair are different. You can change your clothes when you go home, it’s pretty easy. It’s not as much part of your identity. But having to change your hair, that goes much deeper. Require everyone, male or female, to shave their head and see if it doesn’t matter–to students, parents, and teachers alike. I bet nobody would agree to that.
“So let’s think about what these hair checks mean. I remember in my third-grade class in the US, we had a lice outbreak. So every morning our teachers gave all of us a lice check. I still remember how intrusive the procedure was, especially when my teacher actually plucked out one of my hairs, put it in an envelope, and had me wait outside the nurse’s office for an hour or so for her to get back and check it. False alarm–no vermin egg was found. But I still remember how traumatizing it was when I hadn’t actually done anything or had anything done to my hair.
“Same thing with your international students. Your rules still assume the ‘natural’, ‘normal’, default hair color is black. That’s not true in this world, and as Japan’s immigration increases, this is going to become even more apparent. As it stands, and as I believe happened in Nicola’s case, your system is open for abuse. And it led to someone getting hurt. As Japan’s schools are fast becoming the cutting edge of Japan’s internationalization, please be careful.”
He agreed, and that was where our conversation basically ended.
are inconclusive at this time. Until have direct photo evidence from Nicola (as in before entering Ikeshinden and during her education there) verifying a change in hair color, it’s a case of he-said, she said. I am grateful to the high school for opening their doors a bit and taking the time to explain their system, moreover lend an ear to my opinions. This is an issue that affects me personally since, as many readers know, my younger daughter is practically blonde. As she starts junior high soon, it’s very important to me that she not be similarly traumatized by banal officials following the rules without considering her feelings.
Chances are, probably few of these teachers were ever on the receiving end of this follicle search. It’s always very hard for the agent to understand the victim when he or she has never been a similar victim himself. By dropping by the school and making my case for a little less stricture, let’s hope it helps raise awareness of the needs of Japan’s future students.
Thanks to Maria and Nicola for their assistance.
This has become the subject of a Japan Times article: “SCHOOLS SINGLE OUT FOREIGN ROOTS: International kids suffer under archaic rules” (July 17, 2007), available at http://www.debito.org/japantimes071707.html
May 22, 2007
REPORT ON JAPAN’S HAIR POLICE ENDS